Jim Gavin was feeling lonely when he signed up for an adult education class at UCLA to learn more about writing. At 29 years old, he had been working in plumbing sales in Long Beach, California, and he longed to “meet people who cared about some of the things I cared about.” Then his journey led to writing a published work of fiction, the 2013 short story collection “Middle Men.”
After a “series of flukey events,” his writing sample for a television show centered around a cynical plumbing salesman and a young man who radiates optimism became the Long Beach-set show “Lodge 49,” which returns to AMC for its second season on Aug. 12.
Gavin serves as the show’s creator, chief writer and executive producer. I loved the first season for its seamless blend of American characters squashed by contemporary capitalism with a narrative-based mysticism that gave these characters hope. Survival from debt is one of the most American stories to tell right now, and last year, “Lodge 49” did it better than anything else.
Despite the dollar-despair, this comedy routinely makes you laugh-out-loud, so it never feels like a tragic story. The characters may have nothing (or, in the case of the debt-ridden, less than nothing), and the jokes may be about the indignities the characters go through. But it’s hard to feel sad as a viewer when you’re somehow laughing along with their journeys crawling from indebted hell.
In great anticipation for the new episodes, I interviewed Gavin ― now a decade older from his UCLA days ― over email to ask about his writing as well as the narrative arch of Lodge’s main protagonist, the optimistic Dud, played by Wyatt Russell.
“Lodge 49” centers around characters in debt and the subsequent adventures they go on to escape this debt. Could you talk about the choice to make the character backstories so tied to money?
On some level it wasn’t really a choice ― I just don’t know any better. As a writer, I’ve tried to turn my total lack of imagination into an asset. Living month to month, bankruptcy, foreclosure, unemployment, falling deeper and deeper into debt ― these were the daily reality in the Gavin house when I was growing up, despite the hard work and sacrifices my parents made. In this way we were like the vast majority of Americans. There’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach knowing that something is going to go wrong ― the rattle in the engine of your car isn’t going to magically fix itself and soon you’ll be on the side of the road and your life will be truly fucked for months and possibly years because of one breakdown. You either know that feeling or you don’t. After a while, you get used to it and it’s factored into your routine. In the moment you feel neither tragedy nor injustice and everybody is in the same boat, so you get on with it.
We all have delusions of some bonanza that will lift us out of the grind, but nobody in my life ever really expected to get rich, or even get out of debt. The goal was to get to next month and find some enjoyment along the way. So that was a personal starting point in the writing, but [among the show’s writers] we did consider the greater meaning of debt, and how our characters relate to money. Maybe “Lodge 49” is unique in that so few shows deal with this pervasive reality, and if they do it is done in a grim grueling way that doesn’t reflect the sense of humor one requires to live in this manner. Plus our characters are not aspirational in any conventional sense. If Dud had a million dollars he would live in the exact same way.
Have you read Debt: The First 5000 Years or any similar history about debt? The crazy situations humans have gotten in throughout history due to debts seem to mirror the general idea of the show and I’m curious if that was an influence at all.
In our writer’s room we talked a lot about debt, as a philosophical concept and an organizing principle. I believe Charlie Yu brought up that book and we talked a lot about how our characters deal with debt. For Liz [Dud’s sister], it shields her from the grief of losing her father. She’s made herself a machine designed to pay off debt. She won’t let in anything else. At the end of Season One, when she manages to pull off a crazed coup in the bank, she truly has to confront the loss for the first time, and going into Season Two she has to figure out a way to define herself beyond debt.
During an interview with The A.V. Club last year, you spoke about the diminishing futures for many types of jobs featured in the show, as well as the aim to make the central lodge a place where magic can still feel possible for those workers. Can you talk about the need for “magic” in a world that can often seem bleak?
I’m naturally a skeptic, but there have been moments in my life where something strange and unexplained happened and for a moment, at least, I regained a sense of mystery about this world. It’s a delicious feeling, something our soul requires, but we tend to walk away from those moments, chalk them up to coincidence and get back to our daily grind, but “Lodge 49” allows those things to play out in a larger way. Vision is central to the alchemical philosophy of the Order of the Lynx. The medieval idea that the lynx could see through walls. In an esoteric sense, Dud is learning how to see the world in a new way, how to be attentive to secret harmonies. Hopefully, the viewer feels the same way, learning how to read the show the way an alchemist learns how to decipher signs and solve a riddle.
AMC released a series of teasers that cut together different clips of the show to jokingly advertise the series as an “action” show and a “horror” show respectively. Could you talk about the difficulty in marketing a show that’s more about a vibe than any particular plot-line?
Our brilliant showrunner Peter Ocko came up with these and AMC did a great job of executing them. I think we gave up on any traditional approach of trying to say what the show is about, and instead tried to get across the feeling and tone of the world. When I think of novels I love, I think of the mood of the world, the sense of companionship with the characters ― I read those novels again and again not for the plot, but to be in that particular world. We do have plenty of plot and story, but we deal it out in an off-hand way, we want it to sneak up on the viewer so that by the end of an episode, or season, you suddenly see the patterns and motifs that were driving to a particular moment or revelation.
You wrote fiction, including the 2014 book “Middle Men” before pivoting to screenwriting. How did this shift happen and what have you found to be different between the two mediums?
I was broke and trying to find teaching work, without success. I wrote “Lodge 49” as a writing sample, hoping to get a job somewhere, and through a series of flukey events it kept finding its way to the right people. I’m the luckiest asshole in the world. I wrote the pilot the way I write short stories. No outlines, just following a sense of place, certain images that felt resonant and meaningful ― a young man knocks on a door, an older man opens it… just trying to write compelling scenes, runs of dialogue that defined characters, while building enough tension to keep people turning the page. I think the years of work I put into learning the craft of fiction paid dividends in terms of writing with clarity and especially dialogue. I love writing dialogue in stories and that translates well. Every character has to sound only and exactly like themselves, always.
In “Lodge 49,” you spend much of the show world-building the mythos and history of the lodge. How do you go about creating the tenets of what the founders believed?
In many paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries, “alchemists” are depicted as poor and desperate men living in squalor, trying to solve a magical riddle that will lift them out of the miseries of this world. They are depicted as fools trying to turn lead into gold, which is impossible. Or maybe it is possible if you know the secret, which is surely out there somewhere, hidden in an ancient book. Alchemy boasts a long and rich tradition of Duds. In one form or another it has existed in every culture for thousands of years. Alchemy is many things ― the mad hope of poor men, the reliable tool of charlatans, and the beautiful and ornate dream language of heretical philosophers.
All these shades of alchemy have expression in the show, and we’ve drawn upon various weirdo strains of Western metaphysics to construct an Order that mirrors real occult societies throughout history, while hopefully building its own tradition and mystique. Inspirations include writers like Athananius Kircher, Paracelsus, Robert Fludd, Thomas de Quincey, G.K. Chesterton, Louis Pawels and Jacque Bergier, Carl Jung, Evan S. Connell; places like the Sir John Soane Museum in London and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City [in California]; as well as genius psychedelic visionaries like Trish Keenan of Broadcast.
The first season also had considerable world-building for a fake corporation that involved group interviews and a globe-mascot. Did you have fun parodying corporate culture and was there a specific impetus for skewering big business repeatedly throughout the season?
I once had a temp job for a year-and-a-half at a software company. I did data entry and sat a few desks down from the VP of sales, who talked loudly on the phone all day. He was like some crazed jazz poet ― he’d riff for an hour and yet somehow, almost miraculously, say absolutely nothing of substance, just an endless cascade of buzzwords confidently deployed. His mastery of this infernal language made him powerful and all-knowing. I loved it and would sometimes write down things he said and then try and puzzle them out. I never did. That’s why I was a temp. So yes, we had a lot of fun with Omni and Janet, but it’s hard to call it parody ― the real thing is so much crazier! The past few years I’ve thought a lot about Melville’s “The Confidence Man,” which pretty much summed things up. We’re passing through another golden age of confidence men, and they’re all at the top.
In a 2013 interview with Roxanne Gay for The Rumpus, you spoke about taking an adult education class at UCLA and rediscovering a passion for writing. As someone who has also started taking part-time writing classes again (and who tries to persuade my friends to do the same), could you talk about that experience and what you got out of it?
I signed up for that class because I was lonely. At the time, I didn’t understand that, but I can see it now. I was living in Long Beach and working in plumbing sales, spending six-to-seven hours a day on the road, and though I was trying hard to make it work, I felt something missing. Yes, I wanted to try writing again, but mainly I wanted to find a new place to go and meet people who cared about some of the things I cared about. So I signed up on a whim and it changed my life. Not just because of the writing, but because of the people I met. I found a mentor, Lou Mathews, and I figured out who I wanted to be. It had nothing to with “making it” as a writer. I just wanted to have something meaningful in my life that wasn’t tied to the daylight world of money and career. That feeling Dud has when he knocks on the door of the lodge… that’s an echo of how I felt taking that class at UCLA.
“Lodge 49” is a very optimistic show where the characters keep getting beat down by larger, more powerful forces, but then continue moving forward with faith things will get better. The magical elements of the lodge often step in to save the characters’ faith. In real life, what helps you stay optimistic?
It’s a fucking nightmare right now, obviously. Flaccid pig men rule the day. Trump is dead inside and he can only live by making everything around him dead (see Fast Eddie to Burt in “The Hustler”). There’s so much cruelty at the top right now that one of the features of living in 2019 is getting disproportionately emotional at the sight of even the smallest act of human decency. One refrain I go back to is something James Joyce wrote to his brother: “Cruelty is weakness.” I try to remember that. These fuckers are weak, so weak, and they will never know the strength and courage required to be kind to another human being. They will never know the joy. What optimism I have comes from the fact that I have many examples in my life of people who are brave and kind and refuse to get sucked into the darkness. Laughter is a prayer. Joy is a subversive act.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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